You don't preserve the umbilical cord after a baby's birth, but you can now bank (or donate) the blood-forming stem cells the cord contains. These cells are capable of turning into cells that produce red or white blood cells or platelets. You can freeze or store these cells for transplant into bone marrow should a child eventually need it. High-dose radiation and chemotherapy used to treat some forms of cancer kill normal as well as malignant cells in bone marrow. In order to survive such drastic treatment, patients need bone-marrow transplants. If their cord blood were available, it could be used as a simpler, safer way to regenerate the bone marrow and make sure it was free of malignant cells.
The most important reason to consider preserving (banking) a newborn's cord blood cells would be a family history of diseases that may require a bone marrow transplant. These diseases include leukemia or lymphoma, aplastic anemia, severe sickle cell anemia, and severe combined immune deficiency (SCID), a rare type of immune deficiency.
Transplants using stem cells from cord blood are performed only on children or young adults. (The larger the person, the more stem cells needed for a successful transplant; cord blood doesn't supply enough stem cells for an adult.)
We don't yet know if there is any advantage to a child receiving his or her own stem cells (or those of a relative). Transplants using stem cells from both relatives and unrelated donors seem to work equally well. In fact, some experts are concerned that an ill child who receives his own stored stem cells might get a recurrence of the disease for which he's being treated. The cord blood cells can be kept in a cord-cell bank indefinitely; those frozen for as long as 14 years have been used successfully.
Parents who want to store their newborns' cord blood have to make arrangements prior to delivery. You have to choose a cord blood bank and make sure that a kit for the collection of cord blood is provided to the hospital so that it will be on hand in the delivery room. A doctor or nurse collects the blood after the umbilical cord is clamped and separated from the baby but before the placenta is delivered in the case of a vaginal birth; collection is a bit more complicated following cesarean births but can still be done.
It costs about $1,500 to store cord blood plus a $100 annual maintenance fee. Not all communities have cord blood banks. To see if one is available in your area check with your local chapter of the Red Cross or log on to www.marrow.org, the Web site of the National Marrow Donor Program.
In addition to storing your child's cord blood, you can donate it for research or for treatment of other children. The procedure is the same, but there is no charge.
Andrew Weil, M.D.